Saturday Services in the Big Empty

Beautiful day in the neighborhood. Bear really believes I make the snow. She came inside this morning soaking wet, snow on her back, and leaned against me relentlessly to show her gratitude. Cold, humid, patchy fog, snow showers, occasional graupel, a light breeze.

Bear and I attended holy services at the Big Empty and got to hear a special choir recital of redwing blackbirds, yellow-headed blackbirds, meadowlarks, Canada geese and various ducks. You can see “my” two geese in this little video, the two who make their nest in this very vulnerable location.

We had a little discussion with these two geese who were a lot closer to us than they appear in this video. They really wanted the road. We finally persuaded them to take off. I didn’t see anything that they might have been guarding, but they were very very very vocal. There was nothing, no pond, nesting site or any other geese friendly site around. I don’t think the goslings have been born yet, but who knows. I wasn’t going to discuss it with them. If they didn’t want to leave Bear and I would have turned around. Geese protecting something are not especially friendly (ha ha)

That was the best service we’ve attended in a long time and we’re both very happy.

An Alphabet of Place

Our book is finally finished and published and for sale!! Lots of people decry social media, but without it Sharon (https://ladderranch.blog) and I wouldn’t have known about each other, and this project wouldn’t have happened. For me it was a chance to do something that was a little artistically risky and to learn something new about myself and abilities. I enjoyed it so much, and it was a wonderful thing to work on over the past few months.

The book is a collection of brief essays and anecdotes about life and history in this little-known part of Wyoming/Colorado. The stories are funny, beautiful and heartfelt.

A couple years ago my editor suggested I go into business as a book designer. I said, “Huh?”

She said, “Yeah. You’re good at it.”

“I am?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. I wasn’t so sure. When I began judging for the contest I saw some books that had been enormously expensive productions, including their designs. Some indie authors spend more money than (IMO) they are likely to earn on designing their book. I’ve read/evaluated some gorgeous productions that are, in and of themselves, unreadable. Some of the best books (content) are the simplest productions. The truism is actually true: you can’t judge a book by its cover but, at the same time, the winners are almost always well designed AND worth reading.

Once in a while a book is blindingly beautiful. There was more than one this go-around.

My editor — Beth Bruno — is an amazing woman. I don’t know how she manages to get along with all the authors who go to her with their work and then don’t want to hear what she had to say or who question every correction/suggestion she makes. She told me it’s common that she’ll (and she’s tactful and gentle) suggest an edit or correction and be challenged by the author. Authors can be defensive and when it comes to grammar? It’s amazing how territorial writers can be. I said to her, “Well, you make suggestions and corrections all the time. I figure I can take them or leave them. It’s not like you’re my boss.”

“Exactly,” she said.

“It’s not like you’re grading my work or something.”

I privately thought, “English teachers do a lot of damage,” but having BEEN one I thought I should keep that to myself. Grammar and punctuation are NOT writing.

So, part way into the illustration part of the job I had the realization (duh) that my work was going into a book and suddenly I wanted to be part of how the book came out. I didn’t know how much experience the writer had with book design and it turned out not much and godnose my price was right, so I undertook the task of designing the book. It was at least as much fun as doing the illustrations. I’d definitely take on a project like this again if the person I was working with were as awesome a partner as Sharon and their project something I believed in as much as I believed in this one.

The Revolution Chess Game

Yesterday I watched a composite video with analysis of the insurrection at the Capitol on Jan 6. It was disturbing, to say the least.

I’ve been trying to figure out my feelings of disaffection, looking for the source, and as I watched it (link below) I realized that they began when Trump won the election and reached full fruition on January 6. That day I expected drama in DC because it was the day the votes of the Electoral College would be accepted. Watching that on my phone as I did yard work, I was stunned when suddenly it turned from the obnoxious verbal posturing I expected to something very different.

I have a mind, personality, that automatically tries to see things from the other guys’ perspective. That “Walk a mile in his moccasins” thing hung in our kitchen and the Bible verse about not judging the mote when one has a beam was hammered into me. I’m grateful for that, but I’ve also learned that isn’t necessarily how the rest of the world operates. The reality is that we must live with people we don’t see eye-to-eye with. It’s just how it is and the mote, moccasin and beam has made that pretty easy for me over the course of my life. But now I realize that day, those events, pushed me over the edge.

I can’t do that any more. I live in a broken country.

I’ve been watching the Hemingway documentary on PBS. I hesitated because I like Hemingway and during the 80s — 00s he was pretty much discarded as a good writer because of his (alleged) misogyny and racism. Since I spent my career in academia, I knew about this and stopped standing up for the guy. I figured his work spoke for him and he didn’t need me. We are all people of our era, inescapably so. Since it was Hemingway’s “job” to sell books (and himself) he wasn’t going to be anything BUT a man of his moment even as he redefined fiction writing for the whole world. I believe that it’s the work of an artist that matters. Whatever life we have, we have. The moccasin thing applies to dead people as well as living, IMO. So, when the documentary came out, I wasn’t sure I wanted to watch it. I have been surprised in a good way.

In the second episode, the documentary takes Hemingway to Spain where he covered the civil war. The photos are harrowing and his words even more. As I watched and listened, I thought about my country. Those fucks who stormed the capitol were hoping to start a civil war. They believed they were the vanguard of a revolution. They were ready, willing and able to kill their fellow countrymen to keep Trump in office. They believed they were upholding the Constitution by violently violating it.

I don’t know much about the Spanish Civil War, but I know a little now than I did. One of the “players” in that nightmare was Joseph Stalin who sent operatives to Spain to “support” the resistance. The bad guy was Franco (I knew that) and the “philosophy” Franco represented was fascism. He was supported by Mussolini. So like a sinister chess game, these two bullies maneuvered the people of Spain into killing each other. It went very very far, so far that Stalin (who LOVED killing people) tortured and killed many of the Spanish resistance that he purported to support because their Communism wasn’t “pure” enough.

So yesterday Biden sanctioned Russia for cyber interference in our election.

I don’t have an answer to anything. But watching the video yesterday which was a composite of footage from the actual riots, recordings of law enforcement and forensic analysis of the events, I realized that the source of my disaffection isn’t Covid. Finally it registered. My heart is broken and I don’t want to live in the Untied States of America.

17 requests for backup in 78 minutes

From the Back of the Beyond

As anyone who reads my blog knows, “country comfort” is a major part of my life and survival stragedy especially during the pandemic. It’s comforting knowing there are not that many people around to start with, and it’s not that difficult to get out by one’s self. I haven’t found any downsides to this life. It’s just right as far as I’m concerned.

So what IS country comfort according to a woman living in this remote valley? I have it; not everyone who lives here does. In my case, it’s the result of a giant blast of good luck in the year 2000 when I got hired at San Diego State University. That led to my being given (a couple years later) a ration of benefits that I had, until then, only dreamed of — health, dental and vision insurance (which I paid for every month but am reaping the rewards now) and retirement (same story). Because of THAT which happened on the heels of what felt like bad luck (not getting a class at a local community college) I’m here in Heaven in a comfortable small house with my dogs and sunlight and I get to do whatever I want. I can’t imagine anything more comforting than that.

Truth be told, life out here isn’t for everyone. It’s harsh. It can be desperately windy and desperately cold. The growing season is short. Lots of people who move here stay only a year and then get out, but for me?


Featured photo: a traffic jam a few years back.

Not Especially Bugged

Among my spring flowers are dandelions. I don’t dig them out and haven’t for a long time, so they’re pretty entrenched. I discovered a bumble bee hive/nest just inside the door to my crawlspace. The dandelions bloom right outside their door along with the spring flowers, crocus, daffodil, grape hyacinth. The only place I dig out dandelions is in my actual flower and vegetable beds. Otherwise, they are free to flourish. Honey bees are attracted to them, too, so at the moment, my front yard is an early bee paradise. My town doesn’t eliminate dandelions, either. Everything that grows (and this is an agricultural valley) needs pollinators. We are all, “Bring them on!”

The bees also love the Scarlet Emperor Beans and I grow them with sunflowers so it’s pretty fun standing among plants that are taller than I am watching bees at my eye level.

I like all the insects but aphids and their smelly farmers, ants, black-widows and cockroaches. I see no redeeming value in any of those other than they providing interesting sociological experiments for kids in school. The thing about insects is it’s really all time and place. I can enjoy the frolicking of two white butterflies in love, but I don’t wan their babies on my geraniums.

The poster above was done by Amber Share. She is publishing a book with all her paintings of “subpar parks.” She took the captions from reviews of national parks done on Yelp. They are hilarious and I will be buying the book when it comes out in July. You can see more here.

Questions

This is a good post that asks some important provocative questions about post-pandemic friendships, pre-pandemic friendships, online friendships and the reconciliation of the whole mess when this is over. I enjoy this man’s blog very much — Half Fast Cycling Club — and his questions matter. I did my best but I think the writer might appreciate more voices chiming in than just mine.

Half-fast Cycling Club

I find questions much more interesting than answers. Questioning is like opening a book. You don’t know what’s in store. Answers are like closing the book. There’s nothing left to say. Even if you have more to say, there’s nothing left to say. The question has been answered.

My friends Martha and Carrot started a dialog today. I’m not sure they knew they were talking to each other. Martha was talking about how the pandemic has freed us from the need for “normal” socializing and how one writer pathologized this as “social anxiety”, while to Martha it is “introversion”. While she didn’t belittle the very real mental health issue, she noted that there are some things you just don’t do in a group. She mentioned her first novel. “I’d had this incredible experience that was impossible to share with anyone. I’d written a novel. I’d brought my story, my vision…

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Don’t Try This at Home

Art is mysterious to artists as well as those who appreciate it. Stone Age cave paintings are among the most amazing human artistic achievements. On the rough walls of a cave, those artists could portray the rushing movement of a whole herd of stampeding bison. The techniques and materials are as old as time and still used. Most of the paintings are done in charcoal and ochre; ochre is clay. Many of the cave paintings are on limestone which makes the cave paintings very ancient frescoes. I LOVE the idea that fresco painting is THAT old, that it’s just come down and down and down and down through humanity’s almost countless generations.

We have these paintings but we don’t know the people. Archeology loves that mystery, I think, and I enjoy reading their discoveries and conjectures. The newest is that these Stone Age artists did their artwork — which is often in the deepest darkest parts of these caves — while they (the artists) were high on oxygen deprivation. Not just that they were high, but that they painted in those dark inaccessible places on purpose.

I don’t know much about the minds of Stone Age people (who does?) but maybe the archeologists were right. I’ve had a little challenge sussing out the cause and effect from what I’ve read , but the gist is that the artists painted in the convoluted depths of the caves BECAUSE to paint there they had to take flaming torches which would deplete the air of oxygen, inducing visions and confusion in the brains of the artists. It seems to me that the paintings could have been (some archeologists have posited this) a kind of prayer. Maybe the archeologists are right, too, that the artists sought an “altered state” to bring them closer to whatever mystical power (muse) inspired the paintings. If the Stone Age artists didn’t know WHY they ended up in an altered mental state when they were back there, they could easily have believed that those spots in the cave had mystical powers of inspiration and clarity; showed them the future, allowed them to commune with the beasts they needed to eat and those who sought to eat them, the old kill-or-be-killed thing.

Art and mysticism have always been very close together. Both the Illiad and the Odyssey begin with an invocation to the Muses to be with the poet and inspire their words and their performance, all convey the message that poetry is not in the day-to-day realm of human endeavor. Though there is no Muse specific to painting, I know that in the times in my life when I’ve been truly inspired, I haven’t felt “normal.” Those have been really glorious moments and working in that state of mind (heart?) is very different from the normal day-to-day. I don’t use — and haven’t ever used — anything external to get into those states; they happen spontaneously, often the result of seeing something striking, like a single crane walking among the winter willow saplings. It doesn’t happen immediately. Inspiration seems to need some time to mature, to make the journey from my eyes to my mind and heart and eventually to my hands. Sometimes it is the result of the work itself, seeing through the process of writing or painting what something wants to be. I think others can see the difference between work done in inspiration and those done from other motivations, like the simple pleasure of painting. Anyway, I can say in total confidence that I’m not likely to try this carbon monoxide trick any time soon.

l You can learn more about this archeological theory here.

“Normal?”

Last night I read a CNN article written by a therapist — John Duffy — that described people who weren’t all that anxious to return to “normal” life after the pandemic was over. “These people thrived in pandemic isolation — and aren’t ready to return to ‘normal’ socializing.”

The writer essentially labeled such people as “socially anxious” and described it as a kind of pathology. Personally, I don’t think being reluctant to wander around in a world in which a deadly pandemic is flying around is pathological but definitively sane. I know that social avoidance CAN be a problem for people, but not all people who are not super eager to return to “normal” life are struggling with a mental health issue. One thing the article never mentioned was people like me who do things — enjoy things — that you just don’t do with a bunch of friends or out in the world.

I remember very well the night I typed the last word on the finished rough draft of my first novel, Martin of Gfenn. I had little time to work on it — an hour or so in the evening which made the finished (ha ha) draft very repetitive because I had to catch up where I’d left off. Anyhoo I shut down my computer (an old Apple) stood up and wondered where everybody was. I’d spent so much time with all these interesting people, the characters in my book, and now my house was completely empty. It was one of those moment in life when you think there should be champagne and a big celebration but my house was empty (except for six dogs). That’s when I realized that to write I’d have to accept a kind of solitude most people might never even know.

At the same time, I’d had this incredible experience that was impossible to share with anyone. I’d written a novel. I’d brought my story, my vision, for Martin (the character) into real life. I’d done the work, the immense research, all of it, the library time (back then). Because of my book, I KNEW people who’d lived in the 13th century. The experience catapulted me into a different Martha, but I couldn’t share that, either. I remember sitting in my living room thinking, “If you’re going to do that, you’re going to have to accept solitude.”

My mom had social anxiety and she was always afraid her kids would, too. It was one of the reasons she didn’t want her two artistic kids to be artists. “You’ll always be alone.” But she didn’t know. Maybe the great designer puts each of us together exactly right for who we are.

I don’t dispute that there are people with social anxiety and that maybe it’s a problem for them (it was for my mom because she wasn’t happy). But not all people who are less than eager for a return to “normal” life fit into that slot. I came to understand this when I was teaching. There were meetings in which NOTHING happened. Problems weren’t solved. Some people talked and some people didn’t. I seldom did. Then someone would end the meeting and invariably say, “This was a good meeting. Thank you so much for sharing your concerns.” They would point to a list they’d written while the talkers were talking.

Two things went through my mind. First, only the concerns of the people who’d spoken up were on that list. Second, the REAL reason for the meeting had nothing to do with solving problems. These people just needed to get in a room together and yammer at each other. The act itself was meaningful to them. For me it was a complete waste of time. When I felt something needed to be changed I’d go find the person who could change it and talk to them or write them so they could share my thoughts clearly and compellingly laid out rather than in an emotion-laden rambling rant.

Social anxiety or not, we’re stuck in the world with each other and extroversion is “normal.” Many an introvert (like me) has no particular social anxiety, it’s just that “out there” is tiring and requires effort that being alone probably requires for the extroverted. I have friends who’ve had significant stress during the past year because they have been precluded from doing the things that they love to do. They’ve engaged socially much more than I would (or did). For them the risk of NOT engaging was worse than the risk of getting ill.

“A year ago, most of us could not imagine a world in which we not only didn’t have to go to work, school, restaurants, concerts and churches, much less that any such activity would be forbidden. And my socially anxious clients have now been basking in a wholly false sense of security for the better part of a year.”

https://www.cnn.com/2021/04/09/health/social-anxiety-post-pandemic-life/index.html


In other words, the world in which the socially anxious are comfortable can’t last. They don’t own the world.

And then…in reality when I was 12, and had to give a prayer at church, in front of the congregation, I passed out, fell on the floor, humiliated myself and my mom. I was THAT afraid of public speaking. I knew even then that I could not live the life I wanted if I was that afraid to stand and say my say. I worked hard to overcome that. The moment I knew I HAD overcome that happened almost 40 years later, when, at the invitation of one of my students, I gave a lecture (one I’d given to this student’s class) on overcoming the fear of public speaking. There were 300 students in that room waiting to hear me. Some were there because it was required or extra credit for their communication class; some were there because they wanted some hope. They, too, knew they couldn’t go forward in their lives without overcoming that. I had a good slide show and a good speech. I also wore clothes in which my armpit sweat wouldn’t show because yes. I was terrified. But what’s the point of terror like that? There is none. It was a bit of an operation to set up and prepare, but…

I gave my speech. It was well accepted, applauded. Then, afterward, when nearly everyone had left and I was packing up my stuff, a young woman came to talk to me. She was so nervous her face was shaking, her hands were damp and shaky, too.

“Can I ask you something?” she ventured.

“Sure.”

“Did you REALLY get over being afraid?”

“No.” I slipped off my jacket. My pit stains went to my waist.

“How do you do it? I never imagined you were nervous.”

“I had something important to say,” I told her. “More important than how I felt when I started to speak. That’s my secret. I think of what I have to say and who needs to hear it. And, I prepare. And I know that whatever happens, it’s not going to kill me.”

She wrote all this down, no longer shaking. Then, “Thank you, thank you so much. I think you helped me.”

ONE person in that room NEEDED that message. Was her personality a pathology? No.

But after that…I gave several papers at conferences and all the normal things that were part of my life and job, but I was (with the exception of my book reading in 2019) never nervous again. Social anxiety — which I believe everyone has — is not “abnormal.” It’s human.

More Ink Drawings!

Finishing the drawings for An Alphabet of Place: The Little Snake River Valley by my blogging pal, Sharon O’Toole of Ladder Ranch, I felt a little bereft. I’d done some ink drawings before I began Sharon’s project, but never 30+ of them over a concentrated period of time. They were — once I got over my initial nervousness — meditative, challenging and fun. In the back of my mind something else was percolating. When I got an email from Louise, who runs the Rio Grande County Museum, I knew what it was.

A similar little book about Rio Grande County Colorado — my county! No one knows more about it than Louise Colville, and she and I seem to work well together. I suggested it to her and sent her a PDF of Sharon’s book. She loved it. Yesterday I drove to Del Norte to collect my riches (I sold a sign and two packs of note cards) and we chatted about it for a while. It’s a go. She’s going to present the idea to the museum board on Tuesday so I’ve had to ask Li Bai and Tu Fu to share some space on my drawing table. They’re very cooperative beans and said it was fine as long as I kept taking them outside to catch the sun every morning. They also promised to be clean and keep their dirt in the pot.

The board meeting is this coming Tuesday and my job is to come up with a few drawings for which Louise will write the text. Hopefully, we’ll get a grant and some money.

It’s cool to have shouldered another drawing project. A writer inspired Sharon, who in turn inspired me and now Louise. It’s weird. I used to be a famous writer, but now I don’t want the job. Thinking about that, I remembered being in Chicago so long ago when there was an irrational marriage proposal on the table. I was walking through the garden of my erstwhile boyfriend’s parents with his dad, Frank. The relationship with his son was over and his dad knew it, the boyfriend knew it, I knew it but I was stuck there for another 30 some hours. Back at home, in Denver, I had been painting and drawing and pondering the possibility of showing my work. I talked about this with Frank. He said, “I thought you were a writer. Now you’re an artist? What’s the deal there? Why not a writer?”

I told him that visual art was more rewarding. I could SEE it and its effects even as I worked, and it didn’t take so much effort for others to see it. At the time I was writing what I thought was a novel (it was a journal) and sometimes poetry. But then, as now, I don’t think there’s any valid law that says a person can be and do only ONE thing.

Anyway, it’s nice to have more drawings to do. I think my biggest discovery during this pandemic is how much I love making art, just for itself. However, I must now carry Li Bai, Tu Fu, Li Ho, Bai Juyi and Szu-ma Chien out to the garden of the Thousand Aspiring Iris.

Featured photo: Adobe Potato Barn, first “letter” in the little book

Dizain on Beans and Other Things

Reaching for the sun from the first moment
Pushed into soil, shrouded in darkness
Each unique being stretches roots, foments
Life, seminal, integral and artless.
The future. Water, dirt, light harness
life; some seeds too small to see. Wind-born
and plumed, or saved from summer’s long morn
Each fulfills itself from the light it holds inside.
Every green sprout brings last year’s loss transformed
from buried hope that in our hearts resides.

This poem was inspired by a gentle challenge from Val at A Different Perspective The Dizain is “…a French poetry form from the 15th – 16th century. It consists of a single 10 line stanza of 10 syllables per line and a rhyme scheme of ABABBCCDCD.”